Sunday 12 May 2024

Behind the courtyard door - Budapest's buildings tell tales

During lockdown I remained sane by trying to learn a new language and by travelling vicariously on the internet. One of the sites I most enjoyed took me into the lobbies, courtyards and walkways of Budapest's historical buildings. It told the stories of former residents and of events that had taken place there. Budapest is a city I had visited several times before, but had never seen in this way. Last week, I spent half a day with Vincent Baumgartner, the photographer behind Buildings Tell Tales, exploring some of the buildings featured on this Facebook group.

"She is a curious person. If a courtyard door was open, she'd go in..."

When we met at 9am, Vincent had already been on the streets for a couple of hours, exploring and taking photographs. "I wake up early and go out with my camera to catch the light at its best," he said. I asked how the project had started and how he became interested in architecture. "As a child I would go out walking with my mum. She is a curious person. If a courtyard door was open, she'd go in and I would go with her. She remains curious and we still explore together now," he said, "It must have started there." Some of his earlier explorations took place in Switzerland where he was born to an Hungarian mother and a Swiss father. Despite this, from an early age he was familiar with, and took a close interest in Hungary and Hungarian culture. He explained, "We often came here during the summer, and when I was nineteen, I came to Budapest intending to stay for one year, but ended up staying for five. During that time I completed my BA and also took part in a study programme for diaspora Hungarians, learning more about our culture and history." 

He returned to Switzerland to complete his Masters Degree, and worked there for a year, before his curiosity about different countries and cultures led him to spend a year in Iran. In 2018 he returned to Budapest. "Despite being born in Switzerland, I was starting to feel homesick for Hungary, so I came back, found work and settled here," he said. He currently works in communications for an international organisation.

While walking in the city, he began noticing names and dates carved into brick walls. "My curiosity was aroused and I began photographing this historical graffiti, using old telephone directories and other documents to research the details. I discovered that many of the marks had been made by on-duty police officers in the first few decades of the twentieth century, and that others had been made by famous people," he said. One such famous person was the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Léopold Szondi. Vincent continued, "I discovered a piece of graffiti seemingly written by him. I photographed it and sent it to the Szondi Foundation who confirmed that it was his handwriting." These findings not only led to him establishing the Instagram page Bricks of Budapest, but also to addressing a conference in Cologne.

"Almost everything I posted provoked comments and messages..."

This project sparked his interest in what might be behind those bricks and he began entering courtyards and taking pictures with his phone. Keen to share his findings with a wider audience, he launched the Buildings Tell Tales Facebook page in 2019 and soon began attracting a positive response. "The page quickly got traction and from the beginning, almost everything I posted provoked comments and messages from current or former residents, including people who had left Hungary," he said. Today the page has more than 34,000 followers, about half of them in Hungary and significant numbers in the USA, United Kingdom, Israel, France and Switzerland. "During lockdown I began to take my photography more seriously. I bought some equipment and took some classes. I wanted to better record my findings and to produce aesthetically pleasing pictures," he said. He has been so successful in this aim, that two Budapest local authorities have now granted him access to the buildings in their area of jurisdiction. 

Our walk focused on the city's seventh and eighth districts, once home to a large Jewish community. The huge external doors and sometimes austere exteriors of the apartment buildings can conceal stained glass, terrazzo surfaces, art nouveau tiles and elegant balconies or walkways. Others open to neglect, decay and empty apartments, some of them waiting for the wreckers' ball. Writers, artists, musicians, scientists, labourers and craftsmen once lived in these apartments and all must have had stories.

The level of grandeur denoted the social class of those who originally lived there, although many of the grandest are now in a poor state of repair. One apartment building is said to have housed a bordello that counted European royalty amongst its clients. Its stairwells are now dark, the decorative metalwork rusting and the plaster cladding crumbling. The same building has special historical significance as the wall of the wartime Budapest Ghetto stood in its rear courtyard. The original wall was demolished in 2006, but a portion has since been rebuilt as a monument.

A photographic studio in the attic

Other buildings are well maintained with evidence of repair work and clean courtyards free of litter. In Kiraly Utca, the inhabitants of one apartment block had undertaken historical research focusing on the story of former resident photographer Pal Kis. He worked from a converted attic room, where the ceiling and one wall were constructed entirely of glass to admit natural light. As well as running a successful business, he worked as photographer for the Opera House. During the latter part of the Second World War, Kis was one of many Jewish men taken for forced labour, but he managed to escape and return to Budapest. He was arrested again and deported on the last train to leave the city before the Russian encirclement. He died in the Buchenwald concentration camp in January 1945. While performing forced labour he maintained a secret diary, parts of which are preserved at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Kis' story is posted on information panels in the courtyard of his former home. 

The Kiraly Utca building's residents are clearly interested in its history, while elsewhere people greeted us and one asked for the details of the Facebook group as she wanted to know more about the project. "People are used to me now," said Vincent, "Often when they see me setting up my tripod, they will stop and talk." He has also attracted a significant amount of media attention, including from Hungarian state television, local and national newspapers  and overseas publications.

Since 2018, he has amassed a huge body of both photographic and written documentation on Budapest and I asked about future plans for sharing and developing his work. "I started a website last year and would like to further expand my project by obtaining a guide qualification so that I can lead tours of some of the buildings. I have also had a few exhibitions of my work. My next show will be in the Institute Français in September this year," he said. I asked him if he would consider producing a book, "Yes, that's possible too," he replied. 

You can follow Vincent's work on Facebook at Buildings Tell Tales  and on Instagram at Bricks of Budapest and Buildings Tell Tales

You can find the Buildings Tell Tales website here.

His next exhibition opens at Cafe Le Troquet in the Institute Français from September 7th. More details will be announced beforehand on the above links.

Photographs in this blog provided by courtesy of StudioSB

Tuesday 19 March 2024

The Mushroom - Arne Jacobsen's Modernist Petrol Station

I went to Copenhagen to look for a mushroom, but not of the edible variety. The paddehatten (Danish for mushroom) is a petrol station, built in 1937 and designed by Arne Jacobsen, arguably Denmark's most influential architect and designer. It stands close to the harbour in Skovshoved, a small fishing settlement, a short train ride from the centre of the city.

It took about thirty minutes to walk from there from the station along a footpath parallel to the sea. The walk took me past the Bellavista Housing Estate (built in 1934) and the Bellevue Theatre (1936), both designed by Jacobsen. The estate is designed so that each apartment has a small balcony and an unimpeded view of the sea. The block's exterior is painted white, making it extremely photogenic in the summer when it contrasts with the clear blue sky. Unfortunately, I was there on a grey December day when the sky was full of clouds and a bitterly cold wind blew in from the sea, cutting though my coat, scarf and hat. I hate the cold but Skovshoved's residents are made of stern stuff. Despite the sub-zero temperature dozens of people were taking a dip in the sea. A well-wrapped up woman walking her long-haired dachsund stopped to talk and said, "the swimmers are here every day regardless of the weather," before admitting, "I swim too, but only in the summer."

Skovshoved Petrol Station
Bellavista Estate

The petrol station was originally intended as a prototype for a series of Texaco filling stations, but the other branches were never built. It was constructed to a simple, functional design using reinforced concrete and features a flat roof. At first glance, the canopy appears to be the only design flourish, but the white Meissner ceramic tiles on the exterior and the red clock show attention to detail. The clock is not an original feature and occupies space that was initially allocated to the Texaco logo. The canopy is illuminated at night, making motorists and passers-by aware of its presence. The light reflects on the underside, acting as a huge lamp. There is a small cafe inside the petrol station and although I was tempted by the ice-cream, I decided that hot chocolate was a more sensible option for early December. A small selection of snacks were available and I had a very acceptable cheese pastry. The building is protected with a Class A listing, and was extensively restored in 2022.

Jacobsen originally wanted to become a painter but his mother persuaded him to opt for architecture, believing it to be a more secure profession. While still a student, he attended the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Moderne in Paris, where he won a silver medal for a chair design. It was at the Exposition that he first encountered the work of Le Corbusier, and from where he went on to meet Mies van Der Rohe and Walter Gropius, all of whom influenced his later work. He was responsible for the design of several public buildings in Denmark, including city and town halls, educational facilities and the National Bank of Denmark in Copenhagen which was completed shortly before his death in 1971. Perhaps his best known work was for the still extant SAS Royal (now Radisson) Hotel in Copenhagen, built in 1960. Not only did he design the building, but also the furniture, fittings, items for sale in the souvenir shop and even the buses that ferried guests to and from the airport.

I reluctantly left the warmth of the cafe and walked away from the coast road, to Skovshoved, a former fishing village established in the thirteenth century. Whole families were employed in fishing - the men going to sea for the catch and the women walking eleven kilometres to Copenhagen's markets, carrying the fish on their backs. The lady with the dachshund said that there are few fishermen living here now, but on Strandvejen, one of the main thoroughfares, several of their thatched roof houses have survived. On the same street, the Skovshoved Hotel stands on the site of an earlier inn, destroyed by fire in 1765 but rebuilt the following year. At different times, it has housed a cinema and a post office, but today is a popular seaside hotel. It also has a cosy restaurant, where I was enticed in for a hot drink and stayed for lunch - mushrooms on toast. 

Former fisherman's cottage, Skovshoved

Thursday 15 February 2024

Come just as you are - a postcard from Ada in Margate

In 1939, Margate could boast 240 hotels, 1300 boarding houses and 5000 other properties taking in paying guests. Visitors could also take advantage of the Winter Gardens, opened in 1911, the Lido (1927), two small tidal pools (1937) and the magnificent art deco Dreamland leisure complex, completed in 1920. This together with numerous cinemas, restaurants and other places of entertainment, led to the town being referred to as "Merry Margate". 

Day-trippers and holiday makers flocked to the seaside resort and many of them would have sent postcards to friends and family, reporting on their holiday activities, the weather and their lodgings. These postcards occasionally turn up online, in vintage stores or in charity shops, and give a glimpse of life at the time they were sent. Some cards were designed to promote a specific resort, usually featuring images from the town, carefully selected to tempt more people to come. Others took a more humorous approach, such as the slightly saucy cards (although very tame by today's standards) produced by Donald McGill and others. The card I purchased on a recent Margate trip falls some way between the two, depicting a woman in her nightclothes reading a note,  inviting her to "come just as you are" with "To Margate" emblazoned across the image.

The rear of the card bears a short message: "Have not seen Mr and Mrs S. since we arrived, they are far too busy, hotel packed, they sat down yesterday (220) people so we were lucky to get fixed up here at all, lovely weather. With love from Ada." Ada does not tell us where she was staying, but it must have been a large hotel to be able to seat so many people. She also omitted to date the card and the postmark on the rear is illegible. The halfpenny stamp on the back bears the image of King George V, who reigned from 1910-1936, which means it was sent during Margate's merriest period. There are no clues about the identity of the card's designer.

Ada's message is addressed to a Mr. Brown at Anderton's Hotel in Fleet Street, London. Anderton's no longer exists, having been demolished in 1939, but the hotel and its site had a long and interesting history. The Horn Tavern stood there in the fifteenth century and over time is said to have been popular with both the legal profession and Cornish tin miners. A new six floor hotel was built in 1880, with a red brick facade and retail properties on the ground floor. A 1931 photograph on the Historic England website, shows it to have been a handsome building, flanked by the Methodist Recorder newspaper on one side and large commercial premises on the other. Prolific architects Herbert Ford and Robert Hesketh were responsible for the building's design. They are thought to have worked on approximately 400 buildings during their working lives including residential and commercial properties.

Anderton's was more than just a hotel and many groups and societies would meet on its premises, including the Professional Photographer's Association, which had its first meeting there on 28th March 1901. In 2001, a commemorative plaque was mounted on the site of Anderton's, to mark the centenary of that meeting. The hotel also had a Masonic Hall, a 1922 photograph of which appears on the Historic England website. In 1920, the hotel hosted a gathering of twelve trade unions, who two years later would amalgamate as the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU). 

The hotel closed its doors in January 1939, ahead of its demolition. On January 29th, the New York Times was moved to write: "Fleet Street landmark goes: Anderton's a link to Shakespeare's Day, to be replaced by office building...a gloomy structure, some things not certain." Things don't change very much do they?

Most of Margate's hotels and boarding houses closed during the Second World War and for many years the town deteriorated, its glory days seemingly in the past. More recently, there has been a revival with a handful of boutique hotels, new high quality restaurants,  the Margate Bookshop and Turner Contemporary, the David Chipperfield designed gallery overlooking the sea. The many independent shops include Ramsay and Williams ice-cream bar and gallery where vintage posters, books and other collectibles are sold alongside interesting ice-cream flavours including ginger and marmalade. It's one of my first stops on any visit to Margate and it's where I found Ada's card to Mr. Brown.

Sunday 28 January 2024

Sleepless in Churu - Maharaja Ganga Singh

Seven years ago, I spent two nights in a room where every surface was covered with brightly coloured murals. Rather than sleeping, I lay in bed staring at them for much of the night. The works of art covered the walls and ceiling of Maharaja Ganga Singh's windowless room in Malji Ka Kamra, in Churu, Rajasthan, a once neglected haveli, lovingly restored as a hotel. The haveli was built in 1920 by Malji Kothari, a Jain merchant, and used by the Maharaja whenever he visited the town. It was also the setting for many important gatherings involving royalty, prominent merchants and British officers. 

I didn't think much more about the Maharaja until recently, when doing research for another writing project, I discovered that Sir William Orpen's 1919 painting of him is exhibited in the  National Portrait Gallery in London. The gallery caption referred to his distinguished military career, but Ganga Singh was also an accomplished linguist, reformer and politician. 

Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner, by Sir William Orpen, 1919.

Ganga Singh ruled the former princely state of Bikaner from 1888-1943. He became Maharaja at eight years of age, when his brother died without leaving a male heir. The young royal studied at Mayo College in Ajmer - sometimes referred to as the Eton of India - where he received a western education. He was a talented student, excelling in English, speaking the language flawlessly and always winning first prize in this subject. In later life he liked to tell jokes and anecdotes while speaking in a Cockney accent. At fourteen, he left the college to study under a tutor who helped him develop riding and shooting skills and an understanding of the British system of government. In his free time, he enjoyed sports including cricket and roller skating.


The Maharaja replaced a British appointed regent in 1898, assuming full duties at the age of eighteen. Almost immediately he was met with a crisis as famine, cholera and smallpox struck his subjects. Thousands died and many others fled to the more verdant Punjab. Ganga Singh's response was to modernise his state, borrowing money to finance nine irrigation projects, two railway lines and three roads, as well as medical relief centres and the provision of interest free loans to farmers. These projects also provided much needed employment for his subjects. In 1927 his public works programme culminated in the opening of the Ganga Canal. This involved the conversion of one thousand kilometres of desert into green fields, enabling five hundred new villages to be established on previously uninhabitable land. 

His reputation as a reformer was further enhanced by his establishing a representative assembly in 1913, a High Court system in 1922 and a series of financial benefits for his employees including life insurance. He also set up a savings bank for ordinary citizens, outlawed child marriage, introduced prison reforms and established several institutions including educational facilities for women. His commitment to education was recognised in 2003 when the University of Bikaner changed its name to Maharaja Ganga Singh University. 

The Maharaja also had a distinguished military career. He founded the Bikaner Camel Corps, a force of five hundred men, that became known as the Ganga Risala. After he offered their service to the British, the Corps saw action in China during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and in Somaliland in 1902-1904. They also served in the First World War, and in 1915, routed Turkish forces at Suez in Egypt. Ganga Singh was much admired by the British and became a member of the Imperial War Cabinet. In 1919 he was a signatory of the Treaty of Versailles and from 1924 he represented India at the League of Nations. During this period, the movement for Indian independence gained momentum.  The Maharaja, although on good terms with the colonial authorities, also desired greater autonomy, but feared the end of the Princely State system in an independent India ruled by the Congress Party. He preferred a federal approach, combining independence with the retention of his princely powers. He failed to gain support for this approach and  after Independence, Bikaner and the other states were absorbed into a unified India.


The Maharaja’s military status and contribution was immortalised by Sir James Guthrie in another painting held by the National Portrait Gallery - Statesmen of World War OneIn an imagined scene, Ganga Singh appears with the Prime Ministers of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa. The then British Prime Minister, Lloyd George is also present, as are others who at one time or another fulfilled that role - Arthur Balfour, Winston Churchill, Andrew Bonar Law and Herbert Asquith. Back in Churu, his image appears on the exterior walls of the Parekh haveli, built in 1925. The murals show him using various forms of transport including a Rolls Royce and a horse drawn carriage. 


The Maharajas were famed for their lavish lifestyle and for entertaining. Ganga Singh was no exception, always well turned out, he took particular care with his facial hair. One courtier is quoted as saying: "Every day after a bath, for at least ten minutes, he set his moustache with a very fine elastic netting." Furthermore, after getting dressed, he would, "...go to the room where his shoes were all in a row, and he would pick up a long pointer like you have in school. He would just touch one of the shoes with it and that pair would be polished and brushed." Despite his love of stylish clothes and liberal approach to social matters, he held conservative attitudes about family. His wives never appeared in public without wearing full purdah and no photographs of them exist.


Ganga Singh also served opulent dinners. In his controversial book, Passion India: The Story of the Spanish Princess of Kapurthala, Javer Moro claims that when asked for the recipe of a particular dish, the Maharaja said: “Prepare a whole camel, skinned and cleaned, put a goat inside it, and inside the goat a turkey and inside the turkey a chicken. Stuff the chicken with a grouse and inside that put a quail and finally inside that a sparrow. Then season it well, place the camel in a hole in the ground, and roast it.” Clearly, camels played a significant part in the Maharaja’s life, both on the battlefield and on the dining table. Moro's book is a fictionalised version of the diaries of Anita Delgado. The Maharaja of Kapurthala fell in love with her when he saw her dancing in a Madrid café. She travelled back to India with him, changed her name to Prem Kaur and became his fifth wife. 

Ganga Singh did not live to see Independence. In his role as a full General of the British Army, he offered to go to the front in 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War. He was rejected due to his age, but did see active service in the Middle East in 1941. Within a year, he had returned home, diagnosed with a terminal cancer to which he succumbed on the second of February, 1943. He is still remembered for his reforms and achievements, not only in Bikaner, but also in London's National Portrait Gallery.

Monday 6 November 2023

"This peacock tattoo will take me to heaven" - The Gadia Lohar of Rajasthan

My first encounter with the Gadia Lohar was short and unexpected. On the road from Delhi to Churu in Rajasthan, camera in hand, I got out of the car, to stretch my legs. A man working at the side of the road jumped up and ran towards me, shrieking, whooping and shaking his ample belly from side to side. My driver, Naresh, horrified, told me to get back into the car. It was my first time in India, so I did as I was told and we drove off. “What was that about,” I asked him. He replied, “He has some problem sir,” and left it at that. He later explained that the man was a Gadia Lohar, a nomadic blacksmith. Lohar is the Hindi word for blacksmith, and gadia means cart - their means of travel, and their home while on the road.

Gadia Lohar woman winding the bellows, Pachewar

The five vows of the Gadia Lohar

Until 1568, the Gadia Lohar were a settled people, producing weapons for the Maharana of Mewar's army. In that year, Maharana Pratap Singh was defeated by the invading Mughals at the Battle of Chittorgarh and was forced to flee. In a show of loyalty, the Gadia Lohar also left, vowing not to return until Chittorgarh was retaken. They also vowed not to live in a house, sleep in a bed or draw water from a well and began to live the life of itinerant workers. Pratap Singh never did retake the city and they remained nomadic, traveling from place to place on their bullock carts in search of work. In 1955, Pandit Nehru visited Chittorgarh and in a filmed ceremony, released them from their vows. Despite this, many Gadia Lohar are still not settled and live in makeshift camps, at risk of being moved on with little or no notice.

Rajasthan has many diversions and I forgot about the man at the side of the road, until during one of the covid lockdowns, I discovered the Netflix documentary India's Forgotten PeopleDeana Uppal, a reality TV contestant turned actress and filmmaker, curious about the Gadia Lohar, befriended a group camped near Jaipur. Her film shows their problems, traditions and way of life. It also exemplifies the widespread discrimination they face. In Jaipur, when she asks about meeting them, she is warned that the Gadia Lohar are dangerous criminals and should be avoided. She later discusses their plight with officials, who although polite, fail to address any of the issues she raises with them.  

"It is hard to make a living from this work"

More recently, I met Gadia Lohar communities in Rajasthan, in Deboli and near Pachewar. The Deboli group were camped on rough ground in the centre of the city. A couple were working at the entrance to the camp, the woman winding the bellows while her husband did the hot work, heating the metal. They then worked together, wielding hammers to mould the red-hot items into shape. They toiled without protective gear, in thirty-five degrees of heat, inhaling the thick smoke from their small furnace. They make tools, knives and other kitchen implements for sale in the street, but cannot compete with the cheap, mass produced items available in the markets. An elderly man, one half of a married couple who came to speak to me said, "We are skilled but these days it is hard to make a living from this work. Our ancestors produced weapons but today people don't want the things we make." 

He put on his best turban for a photograph, Deboli

The Deboli group had an additional problem. They claim to have lived in this location for many years but admitted that it is an unofficial settlement. The authorities want to develop  the site and have told them to leave. He also said, "Some people have already gone to the new place, but it is not big enough for all of us and there is not enough money to build houses for everyone." Those that remained were living in tents, some large enough to accommodate an extended family and their cart. One resident proudly showed me his family's gadia, “It is fifty years old,” he said as he pointed out the brightly coloured, hand-painted decorative patterns on its sides.  

Before I left, I photographed the elderly man and his wife, but not before, at his insistence, he put on his best turban, replacing the gamcha (workers' scarf) he had been wearing when I arrived. His wife pulled her dupatta (scarf used to cover head and shoulders) further forward on her forehead and pointed out her bhanvaria (nose ring) and tattooed earlobes to me. Once ready they stood side by side, very formal, him extremely tall and her, petite. I also took individual portraits of them.

Gadia Lohar woman in Deboli, wearing the bhanvaria (nose ring) and traditional jewellery

"This peacock tattoo will take me to heaven"

I met Shankar Gadhia Lohar at a tea stall in Pachewar, a village of about nine thousand people, one hundred kilometres from Jaipur. He invited me to his settlement where he lives with his extended family, just a few kilometres away. Shankar makes kitchen utensils and small ornamental items which he then sells at the side of the road. I bought a colander from him for 50 rupees (about 50 pence), which came in useful when I visited a Bhand community on the opposite side of the road. 

Shankar is not the only craftsman in the family. His older brother, Hanuman, is an accomplished metalworker whose work has attracted awards and media attention. He has a workshop on Pachewar's main street where visitors are offered tea and snacks, but where there was no pressure to buy. His wife and daughter-in-law work with him and at the time of my visit, his children were quietly doing their homework after school. Hanuman concentrates on producing art works and I came away with two small pieces - a camel and a snake. 

One of the older women in the settlement had facial tattoos. I asked if they had a meaning. "No, no, they are just for fashion," said one of the younger men. On hearing this, the woman, who until that point had been silent, became very animated and contradicted him. "They protect us against misfortune," she said, "and this peacock tattoo will take me to heaven." She also explained that the jewellery Gadhia Lohar women wear, acts as a deterrent to the evil eye. When she finished speaking, Shankar introduced her to me as his mother.

Hanuman, Gadia Lohar artisan, Pachewar

"I used to work as a day labourer to pay for my schooling"

While Shankar's mother was speaking, Sangram Singh Gadia Lohar arrived. We drank tea together and he spoke about his efforts to secure educational opportunities for his community. He said, “I used to work as a day labourer to pay for my schooling. I completed higher secondary education and then worked for an organisation that trains people in community development. I started an open-air school for our children, but it is difficult to get regular attendance as most of the parents are uneducated and do not understand why school is important.” He also spoke about the difficulties of finding somewhere to settle, and said, “I have worked very hard to persuade the authorities to give small parcels of land so that we can build our own houses. The problem is that although we are told we can build on the land, we do not receive documentation. This means we can be moved on at short notice.” 

Sangram said, “Our traditional way of life is no longer sustainable. The young people need to be educated, to develop new skills, or to adapt our traditional craft in the way Hanuman and Shankar have.” While he was speaking a small boy came out of one of the tents. After playing with a tyre for a few minutes, he opened his father’s toolbox, took out a hammer and began hitting a charpoy (day bed), imitating the adults working nearby. I asked his father if the boy will go to school. He smiled and said, “I don’t know.”

"Will he go to school?" I asked.

You might also like "What have you brought me?" - an encounter with the Band in Rajasthan

Saturday 30 September 2023

The last of the sworn virgins - Stories from Albania

Gjyustina Grishaj was taking the washing in when I saw her. It had not been possible to contact her in advance and so, together with my guide and interpreter, Saimir, I'd taken the risk of just turning up. This involved balancing on narrow logs to cross streams, climbing boundary fences and taking at least one wrong turn before we reached her home, amongst the Albanian Alps in remote Lepushe. 

She wasn't expecting us and there was no guarantee that she'd be willing to talk. I needn't have worried as she welcomed us with smiles and waves, invited us onto the porch and offered water, blueberry juice and raki. It was a little odd meeting Gjyustina in person as I'd seen her a few months earlier in a short BBC documentary, The sworn virgins of Albania. The programme, made by Gjyustina's film-maker niece focused on the almost extinct practice in northern Albania, of women taking a vow of chastity and living as men. Only a handful of Burrnesha  (the Albanian name for this phenomenon) are still alive.

The tradition originates from the Kanun, a set of social codes and laws developed during the Ottoman period and used mostly in northern Albania and Kosovo well into the 20th century. It dictates the strict patriarchal nature of society, with all wealth inherited by men and asserts that women are part of a family's property. It also placed many other restrictions on women including being forbidden to smoke or wear a watch, vote, buy land, socialise with men or do certain jobs. 

These rules did not apply to the Burrnesha once they'd taken an irrevocable oath of celibacy in front of village or tribal elders. They were considered male, with the same privileges as men and could take the role of head of a household. Most would wear men's clothes and some would take a male name. They would also be required to do hard physical labour normally undertaken by men. Breaking the vow was punishable by death. However, there were some circumstances that allowed a change of heart if the reasons for taking the vow no longer existed.

Motivations for becoming Burrnesha varied. In families without a surviving male child, it would allow a woman to inherit the family's wealth. It was also a way to avoid an arranged marriage without dishonouring the groom's family, or for a women to avoid marriage more generally should she wish to remain single. In extreme circumstances, a daughter may be required to become Burrnesha in order to continue a blood feud with another family if all the male members had already been killed.  

"I decided to become the man of the family"

Gjyustina explained how she came to the decision to become a Burrnesha. She said, "I was the third of six children, two boys and four girls. When my father died of a heart attack, the oldest boy and the oldest girl had already married and left. Someone needed to step up and take responsibility. I decided to become the man of the family, to make sure that my siblings would be well educated and to support my mother." She knew about the tradition of the sworn virgin from books in her father's personal library. She said, "My father was a teacher. I liked reading and he had a lot of books, including the Kanun." 

I wondered how her family, friends and the other villagers had reacted to this decision. She said, "I made my vow in front of my family rather than the villagers, but they knew and they respected me for it. My mother and my older, married brother tried to dissuade me. Mother was particularly opposed to my decision and said 'No, you cannot do this, you must marry, otherwise you will be alone.' They also tried to get  my younger brother to make me re-think my decision. The older one told him to make my life as hard as possible so that I would give in, but I'd decided what to do and to accept whatever my destiny would be." 

I asked her about the consequences of taking the vow, other than from being forbidden marriage and children. She said, "Our family was very poor. I did agricultural work, chopping wood, anything. I devoted my life to hard work for the good of the family." She added, "I earned very little and we had to stand in long queues to get food and other things. There was never enough." For most people, queueing for basic items, sometimes for hours, was a significant part of life during the communist period. In her book Free, Lea Ypi writes about the practice of leaving a stone to mark one's place if another queue was forming for some other item. A whole etiquette of queueing was developed to manage such occurrences.

"Once I'd taken the decision I knew there was no way to turn back"

It has been suggested that becoming a sworn virgin was a way of women obtaining greater freedom and escaping restrictions, especially in remote rural communities. Gjyustina dismissed this saying, "I knew another Burrnesha who said that we have to work much harder than the men to be accepted. Yes, we are considered to be like men, but everyone knows we are women." The Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare was even more direct in his introduction to Elvira Dones novel Sworn Virgin, where he wrote, "This...custom...presents a loss as a privilege, and offers subjection in the guise of freedom." Dones' book tells the story of a young woman trying to revert to her previous life after taking the oath. 

Gjyustina, was quiet for a moment and seemed to be considering whether or not to speak, and then said, "Despite the hardships, I've never regretted my decision. I am happy." She continued, "There are many unmarried people but being Burrnesha is different. It's a gift from God. Once I'd taken the decision I knew there was no way to turn back." She added, "But sometimes I get lonely. It's very quiet here when I don't see other people. Without the chance to talk it's like being in prison." 

She still has relatives living nearby. She said, "They come to see me and are happy to help but I never require anything from them in return for what I did." Like many Albanians, she also has relatives living abroad. "I have a sister in Italy," she said, "I spend a few weeks with her every year. I can speak Italian. I also have a brother in America. He sometimes comes to see me. I wanted to visit him in New York but my visa application was refused." 

"No-one else will do this, I will be the last one"

In the BBC documentary, she spoke to her niece about plants with medicinal properties, gathered from the surrounding area. I asked about this and she led us to a large shed at the side of her property. She explained that she'd used it as a small shop when running a guest house from her home. Unfortunately the guest house and the shop are now closed as since covid the number of visitors has decreased. Inside the shed she had several kinds of wild flower for making tea, as well as medicinal plants and mushrooms, all gathered locally. There were also maps showing hiking routes and bottles of different-flavoured homemade raki. "My father knew a lot about plants, flowers, herbs and mushrooms," she said, "When I was small I would go into the mountains with him to collect them and he would explain their uses. He had books about these things too. Of course, I was little and I wouldn't remember what he'd said, and once I lost the plants he'd asked me to look after when he went further up the mountain.  We had to go and look for them again." 

A wooden crucifix hung over the shop doorway and another one on one of the walls. There were also a few family photographs, one of which particularly caught my attention. It showed a woman wearing traditional clothing, including the loose white headscarf still worn by many older Albanian women. She is surrounded by two men and a small boy. Gjyustina noticed my interest and said "That's my mother and father and my two brothers."

Gjyustina Grishaj is 58, the youngest and possibly the last sworn virgin of Albania. She knows of two others, older than her and who prefer to live privately. I asked her if she thought that in the future other women would take the vow. Her response was clear. She said, "No-one else will do this, I will be the last one. Many Burrnesha did this to keep their families from poverty but things are easier here now. Also, people's attitudes about helping others and about family responsibility have changed. I felt I had to do it. Today people feel differently." We left her waving at the front of her house. I looked back several times and she was still there, waving each time I turned.

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Tuesday 19 September 2023

"You had to be careful about everything" - Stories from Albania

There are many empty homes in Valbone, northern Albania. Some are occupied for a short period each year when the owners return from working overseas, while others, seemingly abandoned, have begun to crumble. While photographing what I thought to be an abandoned house, two women emerged and came towards my guide, Saimir and I. The younger of the two greeted us and indicating the slightly stooped woman at her side, said, "Zoja would like to invite you into her house." Zoja, a tiny woman who wore the loosely tied white headscarf, typical of many older Albanian women, smiled generously and gestured for us to follow her. 

The austere-looking house was set back from the road, overlooking an almost dry river bed and under the shadow of the mountains. Saimir and I, removed our shoes and went inside. The younger woman gave her name as Zarya and explained that the house had been built for military personnel during Albania's 45 years long communist period. When the regime collapsed in 1991 the place was left empty. Inside I immediately noticed and commented on how cool and comfortable the temperature was compared to the rising mid-morning heat. "The walls are very thick" said Zarya, "they keep the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter. But they are sometimes damp because of the condensation." 

We were shown into a simple, but charming living room, furnished with a heavy 1970's style suite and coffee table and a few small kilims (traditional rugs). The dark brown and orange furniture contrasted sharply with the clean, whitewashed walls. A piece of hand-made lace lay on a small set of drawers, and herbs and berries collected from the mountains, had been placed on top of it. A larger piece of lace that my grandmother would have called an antimacassar lay over the back of one of the chairs. "My friend made some of these pieces," said Zoja as she led us into the kitchen where two other women were sitting and who greeted us with smiles and "hello" in English. The room was filled with the buttery aroma of byrekas being prepared on the stove. 

"My family owned the land but it was confiscated by the communists"

I asked Zoja how long she'd lived there. She said "I've been here for the last twenty years. My family owned the land but it was confiscated by the communists who built soldiers' houses on it. After they left, I came back and moved in. I am 80 now and a widow. I have six children. Two live abroad. Another son disappeared somewhere in Greece. He might be dead. I don't know what happened to him." Zarya added "Her other children live close by and see her regularly."

Zoja continued, "My husband died eleven years ago. He spent time in prison during the communist period. He was sent to Spaç, where he was tortured and lost an eye. I had to do hard agricultural work to feed the family." The telling of the story was clearly affecting her and she paused, trying to compose herself. Spaç, in a remote part of the Mirdita region, was the most notorious of the network of isolated prisons and forced labour camps established under the old regime. Prisoners were subject to hard physical labour and torture, including mock executions, sleep and food deprivation, being fed very salty food and then denied water as well as being beaten and then having salt poured into the wounds afterwards. Sentences of ten or even twenty years were not unusual and people were often re-arrested immediately after their release.

Perhaps to divert Zoja a little, Zarya asked if we had other questions. All of the women present were wearing different levels of Islamic clothing. I asked how people had managed to maintain religious practise under the old regime, as in 1967, communist leader, Enver Hoxha, declared Albania an atheist state. Most mosques and churches were demolished and anyone discovered or reported to be practising religion was imprisoned. "It was very difficult" she said. "It wasn't possible to dress like this then. Everything had to be hidden. We even changed the way we spoke. After someone died instead of expressing hope that the dead person would go to heaven, people spoke about the health of their relatives. It was a very dangerous time."

"You had to be careful about everything"

I asked Zoja if there had been anything good about the old regime. She said "Everyone had a job and agriculture and industry operated well. But behind it all, there was something very bad. You had to be careful about everything. There were many spies who would listen to and report conversations. Sometimes people who had a quarrel with their neighbour would take revenge by making up stories about them and reporting them to the police." 

As well as people who voluntarily reported their friends, neighbours and even family members, the regime had a huge network of spies. Even very small infringements could get you sent to prison and your family ostracised. Ways of dealing with this included being creative with language. In her autobiography  "Free: Coming of Age at the End of History," Albanian professor of Political Theory, Lea Ypi, remembers her parents talking about an uncle taking 20 years to graduate from university and eventually realising that "university" meant prison and the 20 years of study was his period of incarceration. This level of fear and suspicion must have a lasting impact on society and despite the seeming openness of most Albanians, there are still hints of the old fears. I asked a local why so many Albanian cafes and restaurants play deafeningly loud music. "It is to prevent us hearing the conversations of others," he said.

In Albanian culture guests are treated with high regard and are considered to be under the protection of the house. Despite our entreaties for her to sit, Zoja remained standing for the duration of our visit. "I must stand to give respect to my guests," she said. Before leaving, I asked if she would let me photograph her. She agreed and I took a number of shots, both inside and outside the house. As we left, she asked us to return, blessed our families and stood waving from the step.

Photographs of Zoja and external scenery by the author, internal details by Studio SB

Monday 21 August 2023

"I was so happy I couldn't sleep" - Stories from Cambodia

"I was born at the end of the Khmer Rouge period, so I have no memory of it" said Kimleng Sang, acclaimed Cambodian photographer and popular tour guide. He continued, "My parents spoke later on about having to work very hard and not getting enough to eat. We were not allowed to eat fish, chicken or meat, only boiled rice. People would sometimes take papaya or banana roots and make a soup, but it was not permitted to eat the fruit." 

So strictly were these rules enforced by Pol Pot's communist Khmer Rouge regime, that when Kimleng's father secretly caught a chicken in the forest, his older brother didn't know what it was. "My father told him it was a special kind of rat," he said, "because eating a chicken was enough to get you killed if anyone found out." A favourite trick of the Khmer Rouge was to question children who were less likely to realise the implications of their answers and could inadvertently cause whole families to be summarily executed. The family were farmers, and better equipped than many to survive the forced labour, but they lost at least three relatives - a cousin, an uncle and one of Kimleng's grandfathers, all of whom disappeared and have never been found.

"The worst job I ever did"

The Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979, having managed to kill or cause the deaths of up to two million people in the preceding four years. Over time some semblance of normal life returned, but the family still struggled. Kimleng explained, "Although we owned some paddy fields and grew rice it was not enough for us to live on. When I was 14 I left home for Phnom Penh and took a job as a security guard and gardener for a rich family. They had been living in France, but returned in 1993, when the first elections were held after the departure of the Khmer Rouge." This was one of several jobs he would take, including unblocking toilets, driving and later on, working in a garment factory. He describes the latter as "the worst job I ever did. I worked from six at night until seven in the morning making clothes. I was tired all the time." For these long shifts he received $45 per month, $15 of which was his contribution to a shared rent, leaving very little for food, clothes and other expenses. 

He realised that his lack of education was holding him back. "I saw that city life could be good and that if you were educated you didn't have to work as hard as the people in the village," he said. "I left school when I was 13, and only completed grade five. I couldn't read or write even in Khmer but I had a friend who was a teacher who helped me become literate in my own language and also taught me English."

"I fell in love with photography"

In 1999, Kimleng returned to his village and told the family he didn't want to work as a farmer. Instead, he bought a tuk-tuk, drove local customers and began to meet foreign tourists. One tourist would help change his life. "I met many foreigners, including several who came for photography. I worked as their driver and helped to carry their equipment. In 2005 or 2006, I drove Canadian photographer David Bibbing during his stay in Cambodia. By this stage I was paying close attention to how the photographers worked and David noticed my keen interest. A year later he came back and surprised me with the gift of a simple digital camera. He helped me to use it and I fell in love with photography. When he gave me the camera I was so happy I couldn't sleep."

Kimleng went on to meet more photographers and received advice on lighting, technique and composition. He began combining his love for photography with his transport business and promoted himself as "the tuk-tuk photographer." By 2015, he had become successful enough to employ a driver which meant he could spend more time talking directly to his clients, explaining cultural matters and helping them get the pictures they wanted. "This made my service better and also provided a job for someone else," he said. 

I asked what it is that makes photography so attractive to him. He said "I especially like photographing people and love interacting with them, but I also enjoying taking pictures of nature." I recently spent three days with him, photographing life in villages close to Siem Reap, where he now lives. His affection for the people was obvious. He knew many of the villagers and took time to ask about their lives and families, listening intently to their stories. He also has a lively sense of humour and enjoyed making them laugh. His connection to the people and landscape can clearly be seen in his work which deserves an even wider audience.

Due to his own early experience, Kimleng strongly believes in the importance of education. During the covid lockdown, he started a school for village children to learn English. Unlike other schools in Cambodia, it does not require fees, but to fund resources, the pupils collect plastic items which are then sold for recycling. He explained, "this helps us to buy learning materials and also contributes to a cleaner environment, clearing the village of discarded items". The teachers are volunteers from overseas  and teach the class online. "We are very grateful to our overseas friends who help us. We would like to develop the school further, perhaps with a resident volunteer teacher who would come and stay with us." Anyone interested in helping with the school can contact Kimleng directly through his social media links, listed below. 

You can follow Kimleng on Instagram and find more details about his photography tours on his website.

For more stories from Cambodia see I used to steal small amounts of food just to survive and I felt a burning sensation on my forehead and realised I'd been hit

The photographs featured in this post were provided by, and are used with the permission of Kimleng Sang

Thursday 20 July 2023

Beside the Buriganga

"Look over there on the other side of the river," said Mukal. "I grew up in a small house behind that tall blue building and my school was near the other, smaller yellow building you can see just a short distance away. After school and at weekends we would play in a small park nearby and sometimes swim in the river. The park is gone now. It's become a rubbish dump. The water wasn't filthy then and it didn't smell. People still drank from it. In the watermelon season we would swim out to the boats bringing fruit from Barisal. The workers would sometimes give us a watermelon which we'd take ashore and eat immediately". 

"How long ago was this?" I asked. "About twenty years" he replied. "The streets were not filled with rubbish, and I don't remember this amount of dust. It was a good place to live but it's all lost now."

As we walked along the riverbank, we waded through discarded household items, rotting vegetables from the market and other detritus. We passed a small boy, perhaps eight years old, maybe less. He was collecting plastic items from the garbage to take for recycling in return for a few taka*. He was alone.

Mukul had a persistent cough and regularly cleared his throat by spitting out phlegm in the street. "It's the dust," he said. As we turned to go back, he bought a bottle of water to combat the dryness. In the car, he took the water in three gulps and cleared his throat again. He opened the window, spat and threw the empty bottle out. As we pulled away, I noticed the small boy again. He'd seen the bottle hit the ground and was coming to collect it.

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* taka = Bangladeshi currency. 100 taka = approximately £1. In Sylhet, collectors reported receiving 5 taka for one kilo of plastic. 

Friday 30 June 2023

"I felt a burning sensation on my forehead and realised I'd been hit" - Stories from Cambodia

"I've heard of England but I don't know where it is" said Chai. This 63 years old  Buddhist monk had asked me one of the standard questions asked of travellers, "where are you from?" We were sitting in the compound of a monastery in the Cambodian countryside, about an hour's drive from Siem Reap. It was late afternoon and the gentle breeze both lowered the temperature a little and warned of the forthcoming evening rain. Other monks sat smoking in the shade. One of the younger ones crossed the compound to where we were sitting and climbed into a hammock to listen to our conversation.

When we arrived, Chai was cleaning his teeth with a stick. He was extremely slim, gaunt even, his ribs clearly visible under his exposed right shoulder. His shaved head emphasised his lack of weight. His chest, throat and chin were tattooed. I asked him if the dots on his chin had a meaning. "It's for protection" he said. Many Cambodians believe that tattoos can ward off evil spirits or bad luck. We would return to this theme of protection and belief a little later.

I encouraged him to tell me about his life. He said "I was born in Battambang province. My family worked on the land. I never went to school. I cannot read or write. When the other monks read scriptures, I just follow them and join in the prayers. I got married when I was 22 and I have three children. I became a monk when I was 58, after my wife died. I couldn't live with my children and so I came here".

We were briefly interrupted by the arrival of an elderly man chewing zucchini seeds. He squatted down beside us, smiled and followed our conversation with curiosity, looking directly at whoever happened to be speaking. He was barefoot, wore only an old pair of trousers and had draped a krama, the traditional checked Cambodian scarf, over his shoulder. His teeth were stained red, the tell-tale sign of excessive consumption of paan - an Areca nut slaked with lime and wrapped in a betel leaf. It acts as a mild stimulant and is popular across south and south-east Asia. When chewed it releases a bright red liquid that permanently stains the teeth and lips. If mixed with tobacco it can cause cancer of the mouth. Our visitor shared his zucchini seeds with us, then after a few minutes, took a cigarette from Chai and went on his way.

The monk returned to his story. "I joined the army when I was 17 or 18. I wanted to support Sihanouk against Lon Nol. I didn't like Lon Nol and I was against the coup. Later on Sihanouk joined forces with the Khmer Rouge and so I ended up fighting alongside their soldiers." I was intrigued by Chai having been drawn into the Khmer Rouge forces, not by choice, but because Sihanouk formed an, admittedly shaky, alliance with the communist group. I asked him to talk about that experience, but he seemed reluctant and I let it go.

His few sentences about the war hide the complexity of Cambodian history during the 20th century. Sihanouk ruled as Monarch from 1941 until 1955 when he abdicated in order to participate in politics more directly. In the same year, his party won a general election and he became Prime Minister. He then ruled the country under various titles until 1970, when he was deposed by the National Assembly led by Lon Nol. Sihanouk spent the next five years in exile in China and North Korea during which time he began to back the communist insurgent Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge eventually defeated the government forces in 1975 and took control over the country. Then began four years of extreme brutality and repression, causing the deaths of up to two million people. In 1979, the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia. Pol Pot and his regime were forced out, but his troops continued to fight in remote parts of the country for the next several years.

I asked Chai about the mark between his eyebrows. He said "In 1982 I was involved in the fighting against the Vietnamese, somewhere near the border with Thailand. I felt a burning sensation on my forehead and realised I'd been hit. I was unconscious for almost two days but I didn't die thanks to the blessed scarf I wore and which protected me.  I woke up in a Thai hospital where I was looked after by French doctors". He sat in silence for a few minutes and then asked if I wanted to photograph him. I did, and he kindly stood for a series of pictures.

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